“Upto My Saddle In Luddite Blood”

202 years ago this month, the show trial of a handful of Luddites ended, and men were hung at York Castle after a ‘Special Commission’ at York Assizes. They built the scaffold unusually high, so the crowd of thousands could see the men die, like a farmer hangs a few crows pour encourager les autres.

On January 8th 1813, Longroyd Bridge croppers George Mellor, William Thorpe and Thomas Smith were hung for the alleged murder of mill-owner, William Horsfall.  Mellor was said to be the West Riding’s ‘King Ludd’. Only 23, he was literate, intelligent, charismatic – a born leader. Evidence has recently come to light that the ‘Guilty’ verdict was decided by the government, weeks ahead of time.

The three men’s bodies were dissected at the County Hospital in York, to obviate the possibility of martyrs’ graves.  Patrick Bronte is said to have quietly, at night, officiated over the burials of  Luddites killed during the Rawfolds raid, in an unmarked grave, when he was vicar at Hartshead.

Reporters noted the York crowd watched the hangings in baleful silence. Maybe they knew it was more about preventing Yorkshire folk of all trades from ‘combination’ (developing trade unions) than it was about the death of Horsfall. Horsfall’s own funeral had necessarily been a low key affair at Huddersfield parish church.

On January 16th, fourteen more men were hung for the attack on Rawfolds Mill and stealing arms – when I read court accounts in the newspapers, it struck me that many had brought credible witnesses to court who gave them solid alibis. So it is not even clear if all the hanged men were even Luddites at all. The hanged men were: John Ogden, Nathan Hoyle, Joseph Crowther, John Hill, John Walker, Jonathan Dean, Thomas Brook, William Hartley, John Swallow, John Batley, Joseph Fisher, James Haigh, James Hey (or ‘Haigh’) and Job Hey. Some of those surnames may be familiar to anyone with West Riding ancestry.

Horsfall of Marsden near Huddersfield, had indulged in a spectacular piece of what can only be described as  trolling. He had boasted he was going to install new shearing frames even if it meant he had to ride upto his saddle in (the workers’)  blood. Riding back from Huddersfield market, across moorland, Horsfall was shot.

We know the Horsfalls stayed in the wool trade in one capacity or another, as a Horsfall descendent donated this rare example of a knitted Welsh Wig to St Fagan’s Museum, documented and pattern by the marvellous Sally Pointer.

Throughout 1812,government agents had infiltrated the Luddite movement. Westminster dispatched spies to participate in “twissing in”, the secret initiation ceremony where Luddites were “twisted” (like threads spun into yarn) into service. Laws were rapidly passed so even uttering the words of the twissing in ceremony was a capital offence.  Far from lobbing a few stones, the Luddites were organised like a military operation, and armed themselves by raiding remote farm-houses for firearms, which they then drilled with on moorland, so they could attack the mills and break the machines that took away their livelihoods.  They raided in disguise, blackening their faces for camouflage at night. Many were well read, autodidacts not the backwards-looking, destructive neanderthals of myth but politicised, skilled craftsmen (Craftspeople were always, historically, hard for those in power to pull into line – many were early supporters of the Parliamentarians in the Civil War, for example).  In the West Riding, weavers and croppers were notoriously Non Conformists and free thinkers.

Croppers, or ‘shearmen’, had for some time had an effective proto-trade union but the 1802 Combination Act threatened this, making trade unionism illegal.

My great x 3 grandfather, Thomas Lister, was a wool weaver, born in 1791 from a long line of weavers, clothiers and wool merchants in Halifax, Yorkshire.  Many clothiers were one-man operations; weaving and then selling their pieces at Piece Hall.  Often a weaver aspired for at least one of his sons to become a cropper as they earned more than the weavers and then they could finish cloth and make it higher value, in-house. On family trees, you often see the line of oldest sons down a few generations going: weaver, cropper, weaver, cropper…

Thomas’s son, Tom (my great-great grandfather) was to become a cropper but his career was post mechanisation of the process. Thomas Lister the elder was the same age as some of the arrested Luddites and he moved to Longroyd Bridge in Huddersfield, somewhere between 1811 and the early 1820s. Both Halifax and Huddersfield were at the epicentre of the Luddite movement – a government agent described a twissing in ceremony witnessed in a Halifax pub. As weavers/croppers, actually at Longroyd Bridge – where the Luddite ‘ring-leaders’ were based – it is more than possible my ancestors were caught up in the conflict, either in Halifax or Huddersfield. I have always hoped they were!

In late 1812, before the York show trial, over a hundred ‘Luddites’ were arrested and imprisoned at York Castle. I have yet to trace the men on the prison calendar, but when I do, would not be remotely surprised to find a Lister in there, somewhere. Another great x 3 grandad from this time is Tom Smith, a Longwood (Huddersfield) clothier. Sadly with just about the most common name in England at these dates, that makes it hard for me to find out whether my Tom Smith (born 1799, and lived for many decades after this time) was related in any way to the Huddersfield Thomas Smith who hung alongside Mellor. Like the hanged men, both my Smith and Lister ancestors were Non-Conformists – baptists and methodists.  The second batch of hanged Luddites sang a methodist hymn on their way to the scaffold.

Croppers (sometimes called shearers or cloth dressers) were usually seen as the most skilled of all craftsmen in the wool trade; they raised and cropped the nap on finished cloth. One nick of the shears and the entire piece, representing hundreds of hours of work, was ruined. When a cropper finished, he added great value to the finished cloth. So, croppers were the highest paid textile workers. An apprentice cropper would have to work heavy shears which was agony til a ‘hoof’ (callous) developed on his hands. This took time.  They also had to develop incredible upper body strength and stamina as well as skill. They had a reputation as hard drinkers and men not to be messed with. I’ve written elsewhere about my relatives, the Huddersfield aniline dyers, the Dawsons, who were active in setting up Mechanics’ Institutes in the West Riding, to educate the working classes. But even before the Mechanics’ Institutes, many in the textile industry were educating themselves.

Our old (biased, wealthy) friend, George Walker, writing in 1813 about croppers said:

“… The majority are idle and dissolute…”

[Costumes of Yorkshire, 1814]

Which is interesting as the twissing in oath actually requires that the new member is “sober and faithful” in all his dealings with fellow Luddites. I suspect what people outside the industry saw, looking in a workshop, were the shearmen drinking a quantity of ale or small beer – safer than water, and standard to most British labourers in the nineteenth century. (Woolcombers had to work in a heated space so, like blacksiths, may well have drunk even more!)

Conflict was inevitable when crude machinery was developed – the gig mill and shearing frame which saved employers’ labour costs: “… a machine managed by one man and two boys doing the work of eighteen men and six boys…” (Lipson, p.189).  Early shearing frames were not even very good at cropping. But employers persisted with them for obvious reasons.

So the irresistible force hit the immovable object as the suppressed – and now soon to be unemployed – workers, clashed with the struggling employers. Mills like Rawfolds were heavily defended by armed soldiers. As the Peterloo Massacre showed, early nineteenth century governments were never slow to fire on their own (disenfranchised) citizens, if it suited their aims.

The textile industry drove the development of capitalism, more than anything, in the new, industrialised world and these men were amongst the first and the most dramatic casualties.

Government had ended their ability to combine together and fight for better wages, or better working conditions. What else were they supposed to do?

The whole episode was during the Peninsular War and yet there were more soldiers in Yorkshire, than on the Peninsular. In 1812, there were a thousand soldiers stationed in Huddersfield. A city of only ten thousand people…  In other words, there was a very determined effort by the powerful, to smash the rebellion before it got out of hand. In 1812, the law was changed so that the penalty for breaking a machine was death: it had previously been transportation.

They didn’t rage against all machines – just those that took away a craftsman’s skill forever and replaced it with something that was not improving the quality of the cloth at all.

I am proud my ancestors were weavers/croppers at the height of Luddism and in the eye of the storm.

The concerted effort to stamp out this workers’ movement, was effective. After the show trials, some of those still held at York Castle were transported. Others were quietly let free.

The Luddites were effectively crushed by the state yet I’d suggest they accomplished something incredible. They planted the seeds which, a generation later, were to become the Trade Union movement. If their voice was silenced brutally by the government, it re-emerged later in a groundswell of opinion that ultimately led to universal suffrage and rights for millions of people in the earliest industrialised society on the face of this planet.

Twissing In Oath:

“I, [insert name], of my own free will and accord do hereby promise and swear that I will never reveal any of the names of any one of this secret Committee, under the penalty of being sent out of this world by the first Brother that may meet me. I furthermore do swear, that I will pursue with unceasing vengeance any Traitors or Traitor, should there any arise, should he fly to the verge of  [left blank, possibly “Hell”]. I furthermore do swear that I will be sober and faithful, in all my dealings with all my Brothers, and if ever I decline them, my name to be blotted out from the list of Society and never to be remembered, but with contempt and abhorrence, so help me God to keep this our Oath inviolate.”

If you would like to attend a (free) workshop on Tracing Your Textile Mill Ancestors, come and see us at Armley Mills (Leeds Industrial Museum) on June 6th.

I’ll be there with our Living History Yorkshire Luddites group giving a workshop on how to find your textile industry ancestors, and what their jobs actually were! I’ll post details nearer the time.

Resources: On the trail of the Luddites, Lesley Hall and Nick Kiplng, Pennine Heritage Network, 1984

The History of the English Woollen and Worsted Industries, E.Lipson, A & C Black, 1921





“Ladies Made Happy!”

“Victorian parlour ladies” has become a derogatory phrase when it comes to describing the history of crafts.  I wrote this some time ago for Love:Crochet. Crochet is not ‘my’ craft but it was interesting to look at its history, as it was so beloved of the “Victorian parlour ladies” of the 1840s and sheds some light on why, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it became easy for some folk, taking their lead from historians, to be dismissive of the achievements and interests of nineteenth century women. 

Whenever I see that phrase “Victorian parlour ladies”, or – the contemporary equivalent “hobby” [knitters, spinners, weavers, insert craft here!], I see a sexist attempt to belittle craftspeople.  The whole idea of Victorian (female) dilettantes  had its roots in the Victorian era itself.  There is also a myth about the court of Queen Victoria dabbling in crafts when they were fashionable. In a future post, I hope to show how this is largely a fantasy.   In fact, the Victorian age and the early twentieth century  had many examples of middle class women (and men) reviving almost lost skills and using them to help working class people make a living. The most obvious example of this being William Morris’s revival of handspinning and weaving in Westmorland. Crafts were a part of the daily life of people of all social classes; for some, they might add a small but valuable income; for others, they didn’t just pass the time but also were a way of showing faith and virtue. Knitting and crochet were democratic. Why should the work of women of any social class be belittled or used to belittle contemporary craftspeople? 

Surviving textiles show the “parlour ladies” made beautiful things. Why wouldn’t they?  They had the time. I think it was more complex than just conspicuous look-at-me-I-can-afford-to-spend-hours-crocheting-doilies-that-must-mean-I’m-RICH! 

I will look at this in more depth soon but for now, here is a piece inspired by William Etty’s painting ‘The Crochet Worker’. Mary Ann Purdon was the daughter of a Hull clerk; not a grand lady but typical of so many women who would have spent their spare time profitably.


“LADIES MADE HAPPY! It is the observation of one of our best writers, ‘that elegant occupation is the source of happiness to the amiable sex….’ “   

From an advertisement for ‘Guide to Knitting, Netting and Crochet’, Manchester Times, 1844.

In the 1840s, the first written instructions for crochet appeared in print. In the same decade, William Etty painted this portrait of his great-niece, Mary Ann Purdon. The painting is often referred to as ‘Study’; a preliminary work for a painting that was never completed.

The 1840s saw a craze for crochet, which had formerly been called ‘Shepherd’s Knitting’. This uncharacteristic, quiet painting, a study for ‘The Crochet Worker’, is undated but was probably painted in the late 1840s, towards the end of his life.

Artist William Etty, R.A., (1787 – 1849) was infamous for painting nudes – not cosy domestic scenes. John Constable famously called Etty’s painting “Youth on the Prow, and Pleasure at the Helm”, “the bum-boat”. Wikipedia calls it “particularly gruesome”. (Unfairly – it’s a brilliant painting).

Etty went from son of York gingerbread maker, to famous Royal Academician. His statue stands outside York Art Gallery, where in 2011-12, there was a popular exhibition of his work, ‘William Etty: Art and Controversy”.

He was born one of ten children, to Matthew and Esther Etty. Only five of the young family  made it to adulthood.

Etty’s father rented a mill on the Mount, in York and ran a gingerbread shop on Feasegate. William’s earliest drawings were done in chalk or in the flour on the mill’s walls. Sometimes the gingerbread was gilded with elaborate designs. It is said some were done by Etty.

hull packetAt 14, William was apprenticed to a printer, and worked for seven years, as a compositor for  ‘The Hull Packet’ newspaper, living with his master and his family in the backstreets of Hull. He hated every moment of it. During that time,  one of William’s older brothers, Thomas went to sea, and came home one time with a box of watercolours for him. Etty decided to ask his wealthy uncle to fund his studies to be an artist in London, and although his uncle ignored his first begging later, caved in with the second.

Etty arrived in London determined to become a painter, not a printer and in 1807 became a student at the Royal Academy.  In his day, he was to become the most famous artist in England.

In his later years, he retired home to York, where he continued to work, although he was useless with money and left anything practical to his brother, Walter. Etty was fond of his extended family, writing chatty letters to his brothers and nieces.  A Victorian biography quotes an affectionate letter written in later life to an unnamed niece, possibly the one in the painting:

“A pretty little Robin is in the Minster. And sometimes – often indeed – when the Choir is in full chorus, it joins its little voice and ‘o’ertops them all’”

This painting is often subtitled “Mary Ann Purdon, the artist’s niece”. Mary Ann was in fact, Etty’s great-niece, as she was the grand-daughter of his brother, John .

John’s daughter, Catharine Etty married Robert Purdon at All Saints Pavement, York, in 1825. Mary Ann was born in Hull in 1832 – she had one older brother, Charles. Robert Purdon, was on the 1841 census as “clerk”.

Victorians believed “The devil makes work for idle hands” and so manuals on virtue were published alongside the first crochet books. One title advertised alongside various Crochet and Knitting manuals in the 1840s, was the  ‘Guide to Female Happiness Through the Paths of Virtue’.

“Domestic amusement” – like crochet – was the way to avoid being sinful. ‘Mrs Griffiths’ in a foreword to ‘The Winchester fancy needlework instructor’ of 1847, said that at least needlewomen  can “..feel the satisfaction of knowing that we are…innocently employed”.

In ‘The Ladies’ Handbook of Knitting, Netting and Crochet, (1843), the writer stresses that crochet was a fairly recent trend:

“Crochet work has long been known, but it has only become a favourite with the fair votaries of the needle during the last few years.”

The Handbook stated that crochet was suited to shawls, table covers, pillows, mats,  slippers, carriage mats, “and a great variety of other things of elegance and utility”. The Victorian female ideal combined usefulness with beauty.

Crochet was possibly seen as more refined than knitting. Down the road from Mary Ann Purdon, working class women were busy knitting stockings and Humber fishermen’s ganseys for their families and maybe for sale. Crochet on the other hand, was seen as delicate and refined, and suited to the middle class lady who could spend her time usefully on “D’Oyleys” carriage mats or slippers.

The writer, “Mrs Savage” suggested using “an ivory hook is most desirable. It is so light in use and becomes, in use, so glassy smooth, that it greatly facilitates the operation”. For the finest of work she preferred a steel hook.

Mary Ann is using white yarn, probably linen or silk and maybe an ivory or bone hook. These can still be got for bargain prices at vintage fairs. When it came to selecting just the right silk for a project, the 1843 author advised “No young lady should trust, at first, to her own judgement…but a little attention will soon render her a proficient in the art of choosing the most profitable materials….

Etty died in 1849, when Mary Ann would have been only 17.

In the Morning Post, May 13th, 1850, I found a poignant list of the items for sale from Etty’s studio, after he died.  Amongst the works was ‘The Crochet Worker’, on sale for £48 and 6 shillings. It was listed under ‘Unfinished Paintings’ which suggests it really was one of his last works. And one of the most domestic and endearing. Only three years later, it was for sale again in the sale of “A series of Capital English Pictures”.  This time, it went for ninety guineas, doubling its price.

Mary Ann, and both her parents and brother, vanish from the censuses and eluded look ups in the marriage and death records. They are lost to us, for now, at least. She never owned the painting of herself. Looking down at her work, Mary Ann remains enigmatic. But this Hull lass must be one of the earliest English crochet workers recorded for posterity, at the height of the crochet craze.

I wonder if she’d agree with “E.L”, writing the preface to ‘The Royal magazine of Knitting, Netting and Crochet’,  in 1848,  who said, grandly:

What an allegory of human life is Crochet!

First published in Love:Crochet

The Story of the Wreck of The General Carleton

The village of Dębki in Poland, long had a myth about a British shipwreck and the survivors who came ashore – although the name of the ship was long forgotten.

Dr Michal Wozniewski, interested to see if there was any truth in the Dębki folklore, found the remains of a wooden vessel on the sea floor, and alerted The Polish Maritime Museum in Gdansk, who catalogued the wreck as “W-32”.  Local legend had long since forgotten the name of the vessel, so its identity was unknown. In the summer of 1995, the Museum anchored its own research vessel above W-32. Luckily, a recent storm had shifted a large amount of sand from the vessel, revealing its structure, and divers  found the ship’s bell, which had the words GENERAL CARLETON OF WHITBY 1777 cast into it.

Lloyd’s List for 21st October reported the sinking of “The General Carleton, [Master of ship, William] Hustler, from Stockholm to London, is totally lost in the Baltick, and all the Crew, except three Men.”

The General Carleton was a comparatively new ship, built in 1777 by the same shipbuilder who built Captain Cook’s Endeavour. It had been a transport ship supporting the British in The Revolutionary Wars, evacuating the British troops from Savannah and Charleston; moving loyalist civilians to Jamaica. In 1785, it was back in port in London, or Hull, once more trading between Britain and the Baltic.

Repro Carleton cap. Image courtesy Interweave Press http://www.interweavestore.com/the-general-carleton-cap
Image: Courtesy Polish Maritime Museum Gdansk
Image: Courtesy Polish Maritime Museum Gdansk. Note jog where rounds join, and original knitter fudges repeats slightly!

Baltic waters were treacherous, and the ship had to be guided by a pilot out into the open sea, where it was the following day, when a storm hit. Taking onboard water, The General Carleton began to list badly to one side, and so William Hustler made the decision to sail for the safety of Danzig (Gdansk) Bay, and take shelter til the storm passed. It was not Danzig, but the nearby fishing village of Dębki where the ship foundered on a sand bank.

Over 775 artefacts were raised, and preserved by The Polish Maritime Museum in an excavation led by Dr Waldemar Ossowski. Many of these were knitted items of clothing; some possibly manufactured in the Baltic, but most no doubt from Yorkshire.

Stockings from the wreck. Most likely knitted in Yorkshire, c. 1780. Image courtesy Polish Maritime Museum, Gdansk.
Stockings from the wreck. Most likely knitted in Yorkshire, c. 1780. Image courtesy Polish Maritime Museum, Gdansk.

On the ship’s port side, the barrels of Swedish pine tar that were cargo, had been smashed up and the tar had formed a matrix with the sand and water, that preserved the artefacts it covered. Amongst these rare survivals, many items of clothing and even paper, survived.

Courtesy Polish Maritime Museum, Gdansk
Courtesy Polish Maritime Museum, Gdansk

Items of clothing included sailors’ jackets, waistcoats, shoes, stockings and hats. This was not a Royal Navy vessel, but an armed merchantman. The mariners would be wearing clothes they had bought themselves.  Miraculously, some survived on the sea-bed still neatly folded, although the ‘slop chests’ they had been stored in, had rotted away around them. “Slops” was the generic name for “sailors’ clothing”.

At this date, Whitby had six slop shops. Sir Frederick Morton Eden in ‘State of the Poor’ wrote “…. almost every article of dress worn by farmers, mechanics and labourers, is manufactured at home…” In Yorkshire at this date, both the Great Wheel and the smaller treadle spinning wheel were in use – the former mainly for wool and semi-worsted; the latter for flax. Whitby was known for its woven ‘stuff’ – a cheap fabric made from a combed wool warp and weft.
It’s worth saying at this point, not a single sailor’s ‘gansey’ or knit frock was found in the wreck. Not one. At these dates, sailors wore a woven woollen jacket called a “Fearnought”.

If you want to read more about the knitted items from The General Carleton, there’s a link to the magazine where the original article appeared, below. Stephen Baines’ book, ‘The Yorkshire “Mary Rose”‘ (2010) is well worth a read. Also available “The General Carleton Shipwreck, 1785/ Wrak Statku General Carleton, 1785”. (2008). Waldemar Ossowski (ed).  Pub CMM, Gdańsk.

The General Carleton cap pattern is available in ’10 Best Patterns from Piecework’s Historical Knitting Collection‘, but is also available as a separate download, here.

It originally appeared in Piecework, Jan/Feb 2014, which is still available digitally or in hard copy.

Thanks are due to Elżbieta Wróblewska at the Polish Maritime Museum, whose help was invaluable. Also the kind folk at Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby, and thanks also to Carol Kocian and Stephen Baines, whose scholarship and research made my own reconstruction of the Carleton cap, possible.

10 Best Patterns From Piecework’s Historical Knitting Collection

General Carleton hat. From a Whitby ship wrecked in the Baltic, in 1780.

The General Carleton hat has just been republished in Interweave’s  ’10 Best Patterns from Piecework’s Historical Knitting Collection’.

I’m hearing from museum historical interpreters, and living historians all over, that they have made this hat. Canadians love it for some reason! It has a certain crazy charm to it.

If you can’t find the yarn (Rowan Tweed Aran, now discontinued), use Ravelry’s Yarn tab to find a similar weight alternative. Rowan Tweed was a singles, but it would be fine knitted with a plied yarn, too, so long as it is Aran weight.

Hand-spinners can approximate the yarn by spinning an Aran grist singles.  The original hat had more stitches than the published pattern, and was from a slightly finer grist yarn; something between a DK and an Aran. I decided to write the pattern for a commercially available yarn to make it accessible to knitters but at some point, I hope to publish a stitch-by-stitch repro of the original hat. I saw it on display at The Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby when it was on loan from Gdansk Maritime Museum.

Orange-reds from madder.

The colours are putative but appear to be a light and a dark natural, plus one other colour that may have been an orangey red.  Dyers can reproduce this with a slightly-too-hot madder dyebath, or coreopsis.

Onion skins have been suggested as a possible dye-stuff, and with alum would give a reasonable colour but I think the wool at these dates would be more likely to have been dyed with a professional dye – like madder. The bands of colour in the Whalebone Scrapers picture, certainly appear to show a vivid orange colour. And the fact three men are wearing it suggests it was possibly seen as a bit of occupational clothing, in Yorkshire at least. Walker’s engraving was made 30 years after ‘The General Carleton’ was lost.

Whalebone Scrapers, 'Costumes of Yorkshire', George Walker, 1814
Whalebone Scrapers, ‘Costumes of Yorkshire’, George Walker, 1814